Most of what he does and says is becoming instant legend. Polls and experts show that he’s one of the most popular figures on the planet, far outdistancing movie stars, politicians, businessmen and athletes.
He’s also a social media star, the most talked-about name on the Internet, and the most-searched term. On Twitter, @Pontifex has 3.3 million followers and climbing. Forbes ranks him fourth on the list of the most powerful people in the world. Not bad after only eight months on the job.
One outcome so far of his meteoric rise is known as the “Pope Francis Effect.” Among its attributes is a recent boom in tourism in Italy, particularly in Rome, with the corollary impact on the restaurant and food industry, hotels, transportation and the production and sales of souvenirs – all welcomed by an ailing Italian economy. Latin America is the biggest single source of Catholic pilgrims to Italy, with tourism from the region up by 20% from the same period last year. Unsurprisingly, Argentina – Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s homeland - leads the Latin American charge, with a record 66.5% increase this year.
Meanwhile, the total number of foreign visitors to Rome is up almost 8% and the city’s police report that average attendance to papal audiences, held every Wednesday and Sunday in St. Peter’s Square, has more than doubled.
While European and Asian tourists tend to stay in the heart of Rome, the Latin American visitors seem to prefer cheaper hotels and campgrounds on the outskirts of the city, which has helped spark regional upgrades in accommodation and bus travel to the Vatican, with as many as 17,000 tickets sold in a day. The other important aspect attributed to the “Pope Francis Effect” is a significant global rise in church attendance. It started in Rome, rapidly spread to the rest of the country and then to much of Europe, and now is being reported all around the world “by the hundreds of thousands,” according to the Italian Center for Studies of New Religions.
Italian pollster Opinioni, reported this week that more than four in five Italians had a “positive” or “extremely positive” opinion of the pope. “What is it about this new Pope that is bringing so many more of the lapsed faithful back to plant themselves into the pews?” wonders a columnist for the daily Christian Today. “And why are many more outside the Church now looking at Roman Christianity with a fondness, respect, and overall appreciation? The central reason appears to be Pope Francis’s Christ-like humility and sincerity. It’s difficult to completely evade the pomp and ceremony of leading the world’s single largest religion…but he very firmly believes in the importance of being a man of his people.”
Another columnist, Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, has proposed Pope Francis to replace president Obama as “the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall. He is now the world’s clearest voice for change,” he writes, inviting “even atheists” to pray for him. The most recent stories about the pope are full of anecdotes that only add to his aura of “superhero” for our time: He’s humble and sincere; he carries his own suitcase; he refused to live in the grandeur of the papal Vatican’s palace; he doesn’t like too much security and travels in an unassuming car – a siren-free, blue Ford Focus; he personally calls parishioners all over the globe who have written to him and offers them help and empathy.
“Some will dismiss these acts as mere gestures, even publicity stunts,” Freedland notes. “But they convey a powerful message, one of almost elemental egalitarianism.”
For experts and observers alike, these signs are encouraging. His most recent and controversial move was to send a survey to the world’s Catholics seeking their opinion on many issues via 38 questions, including the controversial – gay marriage, divorced and cohabitating couples, abortion and contraception.
Some see that move as Francis’s effort to prepare the ground for reform before next year’s ecclesiastic synod, where the heads of the church gather to decide on doctrine.
Meanwhile, there are many who fear for his life. His “revolutionary” approach, frontal attacks against institutional corruption and “unbridled capitalism,” coupled with his indifference to personal security measures prompted an Italian prosecutor to warn that he’s putting himself in the way of the mafia, Italy’s second most powerful institution.
“The pope may have no army, no battalions or divisions, but he has a pulpit – and right now he is using it to be the world’s loudest and clearest voice against the status quo,” Freedland warns. Imagine if this were a business. You could already start measuring the ROI of the “Pope Francis Effect.”